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Sarah Palin and he who must not be named: When is a code word really evidence of prejudice?



barackobama_time_mag.jpgIt may be one of the most interesting legacies of having a black president: All the time we now spend dissecting code words.

Derisively called "dog whistles" for their ability to inspire some while others miss their message, these are phrases and words designed to reference derogatory racial prejudices indirectly. Such subtlety is required, experts say, because open racism has been so demonized in mainstream society, the only way to evoke those ideas with supporters is through hints and asides.

For people of color, these discussions are nothing new. When someone outside your ethnic group uses a certain turn of phrase or bit of slang, sometimes you have to wonder -- what did they really mean by that?

But when the most powerful man in America is non-white, those discussions expand to include the entire country.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin and her Facebook post Wednesday titled "Obama's Shuck and Jive ends with Benghazi Lies." 

The former governor of Alaska, now a reality TV star and cable news pundit never known for her finesse with words, was writing about emails which indicated officials in the State Department, White House and national security organizations were aware a militant group was taking credit for an attack in Libya which killed a U.S. ambassador.

She wrote: "Why the lies? Why the cover up? Why the dissembling about the cause of the murder of our ambassador on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil? We deserve answers to this. President Obama's shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end."

sarahpalinfox.jpgAlex Halperin at Salon noted the "loaded language," citing a definition of "shuck and jive" from the Urban Dictionary which noted "To 'shuck and jive' originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards."

MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, who I watched challenge RNC chair Reince Priebus in Tampa in August over language like "European-style health care reform, allowed that the phrase Palin used wasn't negative in all connotations, but "to throw it at the president is an ethnic shot, pretty plain." One of Matthews' guests, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who is African American, wasn't so sure Palin was deliberately race baiting.

matthews_-gop-is-playing-the-race-card.jpg"It does work," Matthews insisted, later saying "it's a sickness by the white people."

But conservatives pushed back. The right-friendly website Newsbusters said Matthews used the term "shuck and jive" in talking to MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow about her trip to Afghanistan and that Democrats have used the term before. 

Palin herself posted another statement on Facebook denying any racist intent, writing "For the record, there was nothing remotely racist in my use of the phrase 'shuck and jive'...In fact, Andrew Cuomo also used the phrase in reference to Barack Obama, and the fact that Mr. Cuomo and I used the phrase in relation to President Obama signifies nothing out of the ordinary. I would have used the exact same expression if I had been writing about President Carter, whose foreign policy rivaled Obama’s in its ineptitude, or about the Nixon administration, which was also famously rocked by a cover-up."

Of course, context matters in judging code words. Joking that someone seems greedy or cheap can be funny; if that person is Jewish and the joker is not, suddenly it sounds a too much like a reference to a classic stereotype.

That's why Matthews using the phrase "shuck and jive" in reference to another white person -- or White House spokesman Jay Carney, who is white, using it in reference to himself -- probably isn't a dog whistle, but using the phrase to criticize a person of color can be. (as another example, consider using the "b" word to jokingly refer to a male friend, then think about using that word on a woman in your life, in any context. Applying the word to a woman surely feels a bit different, more so if the person applying the word isn't female.)

Palin insisted on Facebook she used the phrase in scolding her daughter, but it's not something I remember her saying often in public. And this is from a public figure whose many sayings have become instant catchphrases. So the sudden appearance of a phrase with such connotations also brings caution.

A certain businessman-turned-reality TV star also stepped into this mess Wednesday by making an "offer" to donate $5-million to charity if the president could produce college transcripts and passport records. (I'm not mentioning his name, because I'm tired of feeding the media beast.)

Beyond serving as a serious lesson in media manipulation, this announcement references another insulting attack on the president -- implying that there is suspicion about the validity of his citizenship and his attendance at prestigious schools such as Harvard and Columbia universities. Bringing unreasonable suspicion on the achievements of people of color is another sign of prejudice, and most fair-minded observers have concluded long ago that such attacks on President Obama seem rooted in groundless hysteria.

Ugly as it can be, discussing such issues are an important part of dismantling subtle prejudice in society. People can judge for themselves whether Palin's remark was deliberate race baiting -- and whether she should have so quickly dismissed the notion that the phrase had an unintentional, awful impact.

But the discussion itself helps push everyone to consider how the meaning of such phrases can change, depending on who uses them or who they are used on.

And that's a lesson worth learning at any time.

Below, see how Jon Stewart talked about this on the Daily Show:





[Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 12:25pm]


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